Obviousness and patents

This week, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling related to the ‘obviousness’ test in patent filing. The case – KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc. (PDF) – hinged on whether an automatic adjustment device for an accelerator pedal created by KSR infringed upon the patents of Teleflex. KSR argued that the combination of technologies was obvious, and that Teleflex could not claim royalties.

In order to maintain a fair and beneficial system, the condition that patents cover non-obvious innovations is highly important. The whole reason for granting patents is to foster innovation by granting temporary monopolies to innovators. Patents are meant to include enough information to allow a skilled practitioner to actually make the thing being patented. Under this system, inventors are meant to be willing to disclose the nature of what they have accomplished so that it might serve to aid the investigations of others. In exchange, they get legal rights over their invention for a defined period of time. This trade-off hardly makes sense when companies are permitted to patent trivial innovations, such as the much ridiculed patent awarded to Amazon.com for ‘one click shopping.’

Recently, there have been a good number of cases where the patent system is accomplishing something quite unlike this ideal. ‘Patent trolls‘ acquire patents of a broad and obvious kind, then wait for another company to release a successful product that arguably infringes on them. More often than not, the objective is simply to receive some kind of payment in return for ending the legal hassle. Of course, this interferes with the processes of innovation, as well as undermining the general credibility of the patent system. RIM and Vonage have both recently been targeted by such suits.

It seems sensible that patent offices should be more aggressive in their interpretations of what it means for an invention to be ‘novel’ and ‘non-obvious.’ As such, they would reduce the occurrences in which someone is unfairly granted rights over an idea that many other people have likely come up with, but not bothered to go through the process of trying to patent. It would also reduce the danger of patent trolling, particularly if the courts recognize that such behaviour can be predatory, and that the patent system ultimately exists to serve the public good.

PS. Slashdot has commented on the Supreme Court ruling. Most of these entries are also relevant.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Obviousness and patents”

  1. “Faced with a duly unimpressed USPTO examiner who rejected its new 1-Click patent claims as ‘obvious’ and ‘old and well known,’ Amazon has taken the unusual step of requesting an Oral Appeal to plead its case. And in what might be interpreted by some as an old-fashioned stalling tactic, the e-tailer has also canceled and refiled its 1-Click claims in a continuation application. As it touted the novelty of 1-Click to Congress last spring, Amazon kept the examiner’s rejection under its hat, insisting that ‘still no [1-Click] prior art has surfaced.’ The Judiciary Committee hearing this testimony included Rick Boucher (VA) and Howard Berman (CA), both recipients of campaign contributions from a PAC funded by 1-Click inventor Jeff Bezos, other Amazon execs, and their families.”

    From Slashdot

  2. In recent years, however, the patent system has been stifling innovation rather than encouraging it. A study in 2008 found that American public companies’ total profits from patents (excluding pharmaceuticals) in 1999 were about $4 billion—but that the associated litigation costs were $14 billion. Such costs are behind the Motorola bid: Google, previously sceptical about patents, is caught up in a tangle of lawsuits relating to smartphones and wants Motorola’s huge portfolio to strengthen its negotiating position (see article).

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